Models Methods Software

Dan Hughes

The Curry Open Letter on Climate Science

For me, the focus on Towards Rebuilding Trust is not the issue. The general public very likely has some vague overall concepts of the basic nature, characteristics, and properties of science, and the behavior of scientists. The general public, however, has never been directly subjected to results solely produced by a science community.

The critical aspect, in contrast to trust by the general public, is as follows. Policy decisions the outcome of which affect the health and safety of the public are never based solely on the basic concepts of science and scientists. Every one of these outcomes, without exception, have been implemented through independent regulatory agencies of governments. These agencies have been designed first of all to be placed between advocates and the general public. The agencies are also responsible for conducting rigorous, independent, deep, and difficult, review of not only the background science, but more importantly the science, engineering, and technology that is necessary for implementation of products and services. All of these agencies have set in place procedures and processes that must be followed without exception.

The reviews, by the way, are almost never based solely on the peer-reviewed literature as published in only selected properly approved journals by selected and approved authors. Instead, while some peer-reviewed literature will of course be considered, it is the internally conducted science, engineering, and technology that will be the basis of the decisions. Much of this research, development, engineering, and technology, by its very definition, is not, can not, and will not be available to the general public. In this respect, most of the general public may not be even vaguely aware of the nitty-gritty details of the basis of decisions that affect them. They couldn’t care less abut the science. They only want the decisions to be correct.

Additionally, note that while the climate change community insists that mistakes and errors will appear in peer-reviewed literature as published in only selected properly approved journals by selected and approved authors, these will potentially be corrected at some unspecified times in the future. Assumption of merely potentially timely resolution of errors will never be used as a justification for implementation of policies that affect the health and safety of the public.

Some of the independent agencies have acronyms familiar to the general public; FDA, NRC, FAA, DOT, among hundreds of others. Independent approval is mandatory for certification of aircraft, marketing of drugs, building power plants, damns, bridges, elevators, roads and highways, automobiles, escalators, composition of concrete, building materials and an almost endless list of others. The processes and procedures imposed on various industries are accepted as standard operating conditions and correctly followed by tens of thousands of employees in hundreds of industries. It’s not rocket science.

This is the critical focus area. I suggest that until climate science can identify an exception, climate science will continued to be an area which will be subjected to unrelenting, independent, public, and in public, verification and validation. The activities for which the climate change community should take responsibility, many already imposed on members of professional engineering societies and their publications, will be conducted by persons outside the community.

For a different outlook on the situation, consider the following. Here are several issue that have the potential to affect the health and safety of the public;

1. Irradiation of all organic food would save lives and at the same time reduce the resources needed to produce foodstuffs by a significant reduction in food wastes. With a bonus of needing less hydrocarbon-based supplements for crop production.
2. Nuclear power is at present the best alternative fuel source to fossil fueled base-loaded electricity production.
3. Genetically modified food crops have the same benefits as listed in 1 above.
4. The proper use of DDT can very significantly reduce unnecessary deaths in less-developed countries.

There are others and some more or less controversial among the general public. Note firstly that none of these have been approved solely by ‘the science’. Instead, every one of them has had independent regulatory agency approval. Secondly, note that not only has the science been known for decades, but more importantly the engineering and technology to safely implement them have been researched and developed to the extent that safe and effective products and services are available. Finally, note that some have not yet been widely implemented and remain contested. Why does the science change community consider themselves immune to the outcome that these have experienced.

And consider the following:

1. Use of biomass crops to reduce consumption of oil for transportation has very significant adverse impacts on the environment and more importantly on human populations through higher costs for food necessary for health and safety.

A climate-change community issue for which no one in that community will accept responsibility. An example that the just do something application of the precautionary principle will generally lead to failure.

A postscript:
As the headlines come out day after day, climate science is very likely at the present time not among the sciences in which much public trust will soon remain. But from my view that is another issue altogether. And, also from my view, they did it to themselves. On moderated blogs, why is it ever necessary that demeaning and obscene comments appear? Obscene characterizations of persons exhibits nothing more than stupidity. In one case of which I am aware, the blog owner has made such characterizations. Presumption of motives also frequently appears. Unfounded labeling runs rampart. If a label is applied, it should be accompanied with documentation that the label is correct. Mistaken characterizations of the results of the science are let stand if the characterization is favorable to the perception of a rapidly approaching, and enormous, unavoidable, fatal calamity of global proportions. Mistaken characterizations of the AOLGCM codes are let stand if the characterization implies that the bases of the software is at an extremely fundamental level. Recently the AOLGCMs were characterized to be a computational physics problem and thus devoid of any heuristic or ad hoc or empirical or EWAG or hand-waving aspects. All that is needed to get significantly more nearly accurate results is a little more computer time.

One of the reasons that I became interested in climate issues was the overwhelming appeal to their own authority that is evident in the area. Fundamental documentation issues and the total lack of, and complete dismissal of, use of fundamental processes and procedures in software development are among the main problem areas that I see. The fundamental processes and procedures in software development have been accepted and successfully integrated into every-day working environments by thousands of professionals in a very wide range of other engineering / technical / scientific disciplines. The climate change community seems to expect an exemption from application of these standard and critically necessary processes and procedures.

Other problem areas are the lack of respect for the informed understanding of others. The community seems to have overlooked the fact that there are lots of semi-retired, highly trained individuals with quite a bit of free time on their hands and looking for something to keep them busy.

Foolish assignment of the roles of Big Something in the views of others that are contrary to the revealed wisdom. Equally foolish, and just plain wrong, assignment of the sources of funding for those that have an informed understanding that differs from the accepted. and expected, norm

The appeal to, and extremely unusual assignment of prime importance to, so-called peer-review published papers in only the proper accepted journals. Again overlooking the fact that there are millions of people having both written and reviewed such papers and are very aware of exactly what the process accomplishes. And more importantly, what the process does not accomplish and was never intended to accomplish. The appeal to, and extremely unusual assignment of prime importance to, a very narrow range of areas and expertise that are allowed to express an informed understanding of issues.

These problem areas, coupled with an overarching appeal to supreme authority and associated arrogance are not conducive productive discussions. On the other hand, many associated with the climate change community are openly hostile to the very idea that productive discussions should be tolerated or even allowable.


February 24, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized |


  1. Regulators, pharma companies, CROs, scientists, clinicians, patients, insurers, and members of the general public accept as a matter of course that research with certain procedural flaws cannot be used to support regulatory approvals of a pharmaceutical. Even if the research’s outcome suggests that the drug should win approval. I could cite an instance from this week’s news about a botched pivotal clinical trial of an antibiotic, but why bother? Everybody knows my assertion is true, and — concerning drug approval — everyone accepts it.

    As you point out in your essay, this is the norm for all areas where science underlies important public policy decisions, from food purity to elevator brake systems.

    Here is a link to Joe Romm savaging Curry’s essay. He essentially argues that the science is settled, that skeptics are either knaves or fools, and that the public policy decisions on Climate are too important to be subject to delays on mere procedural issues.

    I expect his points will be widely echoed within the mainstream Consensus AGW community.

    The continued hardening of public attitudes that will likely result will be a benefit, if it turns out that fears of Global Warming are greatly overstated. Of course, if the Consensus AGW position is largely correct, such added delay will turn out to have tragic consequences. Ironic, perhaps.

    (BTW, a typo. “Why does the xxx science xxx change community consider…”)

    Comment by AMac | February 24, 2010 | Reply

  2. Dan said:
    The reviews, by the way, are almost never based solely on the peer-reviewed literature as published in only selected properly approved journals by selected and approved authors. Instead, while some peer-reviewed literature will of course be considered, it is the internally conducted science, engineering, and technology that will be the basis of the decisions. […] They only want the decisions to be correct.
    I agree whole-heatedly; I’ve tried to make a similar point a couple of times over on Pielke Jr.’s blog, but I think it just gets ignored.

    Recently the AOLGCMs were characterized to be a computational physics problem and thus devoid of any heuristic or ad hoc or empirical or EWAG or hand-waving aspects. All that is needed to get significantly more nearly accurate results is a little more computer time.
    Ha! Reading that made me laugh out loud.

    Nice essay Dan.

    Comment by jstults | February 24, 2010 | Reply

  3. Your point about decision support requiring more analysis than exists in the peer-reviewed literature is recognized by some folks:
    The scientist likely will have to make professional judgments when estimating the consequences of management options, because a complete array of hard science studies on which to base the estimates probably is not available. For example, scientists may have to interpolate between points of hard science information, extrapolate results from the research study area to another area, or from one geographic scale to another. None of these science roles is easy, but they are feasible when done with careful anchoring in the scientific literature and when associated with clear communication of the degree of confidence in the results.

    Unfortunately, they still display the fundamental misunderstanding of what scientific insight brings to a public policy debate:
    Without the science information, the public dialogue often deteriorates into a dogmatic debate among divergent and often mutually exclusive positions driven by self-interest.
    Just because we agree on the state of affairs doesn’t mean we’ll agree on what to do about it, and I’m a little baffled about how science would slay self-interest, but to be fair they do go on to say,
    Science informs the choice, but it does not make the choice or direct a single solution. […] Credible scientific information about system function, feasible management options, and inherent risks and consequences of different management options, on the other hand, is usually in short supply. Yet, it too is a vital component in reasoned public choices. Sacrificing the scarce science contribution for the more common, though no less important, expression of personal values is a poor trade. It is a poor trade for the credibility of science and it is a poor trade for the decision-making process.

    Given these risks and tradeoffs, scientists should avoid position advocacy.

    Position Advocacy by Scientists Risks Science Credibility [pdf]

    Comment by jstults | February 25, 2010 | Reply

  4. Hi Dan,

    It seems unlikely that a climate scientist would not know that the scientific method is based on the fundamental assumption that the sole test of knowledge is experiment — not authority. So for a scientist to say that scientists need to focus more towards rebuilding trust in scientific authority is not a scientific statement. That is, the needed trust has nothing to do with a scientist’s role in performing science. It must be for some other purpose. How can this situation itself not cause mistrust?

    Additionally, since almost all climate predictions hinge on the reliability of the climate computer models, it seems unlikely that a climate scientist would fail to realize the need for rigorous software quality assurance processes. IMHO, this lack of proper focus on IV&V is a prime indication that there are other factors more important to climate scientists than just the reliability of the climate models. This also causes mistrust.

    Finally, I agree with your observations about the lack of decorum and seemingly deliberate mischaracterization of people’s positions by certain climate scientists. Very unscientific-like behavior. Again, how can such behavior breed anything other than mistrust?

    So if anybody asked me what climate scientists should do in order to rebuild trust, I think I could come up with a suggestion or two or three.


    Comment by George Crews | February 25, 2010 | Reply

  5. Excellent comments, thanks.

    That’s a very interesting article, and from an unusual source, jstults. And written almost 10 years ago.

    I don’t agree that advocates, whether scientists, engineers, or technologist, do not have a place in private industry. That’s their job. If the product or service potentially affects the public, they are required to defend their position before independent review panels having equal expertise in the associated areas.

    btw, I’m I the only one who thinks ‘science’, ‘scientist’, and ‘the science’ are becoming extremely over used and dilution of the brand is well underway?

    Comment by Dan Hughes | February 26, 2010 | Reply

  6. I’m I the only one who thinks ’science’, ’scientist’, and ‘the science’ are becoming extremely over used and dilution of the brand is well underway?

    I get that same feeling; every time I see something in the popular press hand-waving about The Science (suitably vague yet awe inspiring to some population of useful idiots), I think of this clip from Anchorman (sorry if the foul language offends, the relevant part, aside from the over-all buffoonery being similar, is at the end where he’s comparing his brain size to a woman’s: “It’s Science”); also reminds me of Feynman’s experience with textbooks:

    The answer was, for the wind-up toy, “Energy makes it go.” And for the boy on the bicycle, “Energy makes it go.” For everything, “Energy makes it go.”

    Now that doesn’t mean anything. Suppose it’s “Wakalixes.” That’s the general principle: “Wakalixes makes it go.” There’s no knowledge coming in. The child doesn’t learn anything; it’s just a word!

    “The Science makes it go”. There’s no knowledge coming in. The public doesn’t learn anything; it’s just a word!

    Comment by jstults | February 26, 2010 | Reply

    • I’ve been thinking about this scientists-as-advocate issue in the frame of AGW. It seems to me that many of the organizations that are backing ‘the precautionary principle and we’ve got to just do something now’ are the same organizations that have made our energy policy the debacle that it has been for the past four decades.

      These organizations and the focus of their advocacy are frequently given low marks; by professionals for technical content ( lack thereof ), and by the general public for the apparent lack of common sense.

      The advocate-scientists associated with AGW are in danger of being sucked into this situation. In fact, it is highly likely that this is already well under way. The big, and I do mean big, downside is that all of engineering / technology / science will be adversely affected. In this light, the article is a warning to which we should pay careful attention.

      I was looking at the comments on this thread over on Dot Earth when this hit me. Very few of the comments fit into the box that I associate with readers of the NYT. I know it’s never a good thing to assign people to boxes, but I just did. And there are very few ( almost no ) kind words about the ‘science’ behind the concept.

      This post by Henk Tennekes ends with what I think is something that every professional should keep in mind.

      Comment by Dan Hughes | March 3, 2010 | Reply

  7. Dan, this is a very good essay, thanks for posting this, there are constructive and thoughtful comments here. Its very nice to find a little oasis of sanity in the blogosphere

    Comment by Judith Curry | February 27, 2010 | Reply

  8. Great Essay. I couldn’t figure out what a AOLGCM was, so I did an unsuccessful google search. While searching, I ran across an interesting blog post at written by a guy named “Biker Trash” that is worth a read. I have a hunch as to who this guy is, BTW.

    Comment by Bob White | February 28, 2010 | Reply

    • Hey Bob, how’s it going? Are you riding yet? Up here on our small hill we’ve been moving snow around for a week now. No riding weather in sight.

      I use AOL for Atmosphere, Ocean, Land. A more nearly complete modeling of the carbon cycle and related energy budget should include Biology, Geology, and Chemistry, along with Bio- and Geo-chemical.

      It has always interested me that for tools developed for investigations of the effects of carbon on the Earth’s systems, many ( almost all ) GCMs don’t yet include a zeroth-order cut at the Carbon cycle. Instead, the stuff is simply dumped into the atmosphere.

      ” When the journey is the destination, we need a new working definition for ‘lost’ “. Me ~ 2001

      Ride Far, Ride Fast, Ride Safe.

      Comment by Dan Hughes | February 28, 2010 | Reply

  9. I have generally stayed away from the science-as-politics issue. But the headlines are coming thick and heavy just about every day now. The latest example is on Professor Roger Pielke Jr.’s blog.

    It seems to me that some climate scientists know that we are at the intersection of energy and environment. They are planning to adapt the tactics that have been used to successfully set the debacle known as our so-called energy policy and some environmental regulations. Additional debacles are guaranteed.

    Climate Science has been hi-jacked by advocates / activists whose only goals are political not science. Exactly as our ‘energy policy’ has been set for decades by these very same advocates / activists. The energy policy of the USA is a joke. I was reminded today that the Department of Energy was established in 1977 and tasked with the mission to decrease our dependency on imported hydrocarbons. And if the results are not considered to be a joke, just let that sink in for a while; it’ll come to you.

    While the general publics is vaguely aware of the existence of environmental regulations, the vast majority have not been adversely affected directly. The increases in the cost of these have been sufficiently small and so widely dispersed, that few have been impacted to any significant extent. The designation of wetlands on private lands have hit many individuals in certain parts of the country. Some in the general public do see some of the cases in which plants and animals are given priority over humans; jokes are made about these. Unfortunately, there are sometimes serious consequences that adversely impact humans. The ownership by the government of vast reaches of lands in states west of the rockies is beginning to have effects on the tax base and that might eventually raise awareness by more people. Some of the recent rulings on government ownership of certain parts of these have been implemented so as to impede development of energy transformation systems that do not depend on hydrocarbons. So it goes.

    But what the public hears about the costs of carbon control seems to say to them that the costs to everyone are going to be huge. Even some of our representatives in the House and Senate make such statements in forums that reach the general public. And while advocates / activists have huge budgets, allocated for both public pronouncements and donations to selected politicians, the general public does not have these focused resources.

    At the same time, the general public is becoming more aware of the highly visible inconsistencies between what some advocates / activists say and what they do. Several of the more visible cases are the subject of ridicule. And it’s easy to see why that happens. The size of, and big numbers of, houses occupied by some advocates / activists are seen to be obscene, as is the number and kind of vehicles they use for personal transportation. And while some of these owner / advocates claim carbon offsets make their carbon footprint small, they conveniently over look the vast amount of natural resources that are needed construct the houses and vehicles. The Earth could support only a small fraction of the present population if everyone attempted to build even a single 5,000 to 50,000 square foot house, not to mention 2 or more of these. Even with a zero carbon footprint. They also conveniently over look the fact that every dollar of their extremely high income is based on someone somewhere using carbon; vast amounts of carbon.

    There are no basis in science for the agendas of these advocates / activists groups. Climate science is on the brink of descending into the depths of political agendas. The significant collateral damage to all of science will be significant. There will be jokes. Science-based-policy is already becoming a joke.

    Soon, scientists will be associated with these people and their issues.

    Comment by Dan Hughes | March 9, 2010 | Reply

  10. Things will get worse before they get better (from an ecologist, who does not work at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution):
    The information that is important in making the decisions as to how to manage our world is unequivocal and must be advanced, not as questions at the edge of scientific knowledge where scientist like to dwell, but as the facts that they are, facts as immutable as the law of gravity.
    It is a clear statement of what is required for government to do its job in protecting the public welfare. The scientific community has a firm responsibility in this realm now.
    The fact is that we, humans, have changed the composition of the atmosphere with respect to heat-trapping gases enough to start the progression of global climate, not into a new steady state, but into an open-ended warming that is pulling the environment out from under this civilization. If one wonders where that process leads, one need not look far around the world to find dysfunctional landscapes. Have a quick look at New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, or Haiti before the earthquake

    Dr George Woodwell sets the Record Straight
    The problem is that his alarm-ism is seen as ‘The Science’, he clearly has no idea of the state of predictive capability in our models (has he seen some hidden results the rest of us don’t know about which show run-away warming a la Venus?) or the level of understanding we currently have of the earth as a system, and he uses recent natural disasters that have nothing to do with CO2 concentration as a fear-mongering prop! What a great scientist…

    The echo chamber at climateprogress is hilarious, lots of great, thoughtful discussion going on there.

    Comment by jstults | March 9, 2010 | Reply

  11. […] I’m adding links to other blogs posting reactions to Judy’s essay as I read them today. Anthony Watts, Jeff Id of TAV, Roger Pielke Jr., Tom Fuller (full essay), Bishop Hill, Guardian response posted before Judy’s essay appeared, Roger Pielke Sr., Lubos includes a mention, Romm, Revkin @ dotEarth, Dan Hughes. […]

    Pingback by The Blackboard » On the Credibility of Climate Research: The Blackboard Responds | October 17, 2011 | Reply

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